Another take on “marriage”

The following opinion column appeared in the Indy Star:

Threat to Marriage

It’s an interesting example for thinking about the different ways that the standard view and rhetorical view of communication impact our interactions. Notice how the author seems to suggest that the definition of marriage could expand and shift to include gays and lesbians. But at the same time, the author treats marriage as if it is a stable and natural “institution” that should mean the same thing for everyone.

Meanings and definitions

The linked cover story from Newsweek provides a great example of metaphors, myths, and creating meaning:

Why Rush Is Wrong

The author is a conservative Republican who talks about avoiding the belief that there is ONE, True way to be “conservative” (i.e. forgetting that it’s just a metahpor or myth). Instead he suggests that it’s necessary to continue to redefine the concept to better fit the country today. This article provides an example of the day-to-day significance of realizing that knowledge or meaning is not stable or universal.

American Myths

A quick review of how DeLuca’s article on “myth” fits in with our current “theme:” knowledge and truth. (These are brief summaries, not definitive reviews)…

  • Freire believes knowledge “emerges” in communication, dialogue, inquiry, interaction with others.
  • Nietzsche tells us that all knowledge and truth are only metaphors (arbitrary words that have become imperfect concepts) that humans have agreed to use.
  • DeLuca says we invent “myths” and then we forget that we created those stories and we treat those myths as absolute “truth” or “knowledge.” But he wants us to remember that all the cultural stories that we accept as “natural” are really “myths” humans created for social and political reasons.

Here are few more examples of VERY well-known or recognizable myths from U.S. culture.

Newsweek ran a story about “How American Myths Are Made.” The article mentions one familiar myth–the Triumph of the Common Person. Or in other words, the story we tell about how any old Joe or Jane can achieve greatness and accomplish extraordinary things if they just work and try hard enough. This myth explains why someone like the now infamous “Joe the Plumber” becomes such a big icon–he fits perfectly into the role of your everyday, hardworking guy with aspirations to buy a company and achieve something. This myth has positive aspects like encouraging people toward success, but it also can cause problems because it leads us to blame people for their “failures” when sometimes the odds are stacked against them. Not everyone who works hard will “make it.”

The Newsweek story also mentions the way we create myths about evil enemies and “others” when we need someone to blame or distrust. We saw this during the era of McCarthyism when the House Committee on Un-American Activities accused innocent folks of being communist. We saw this when the goverment rounded up Japanese Americans and put them in U.S. internment camps while many cultural messages portrayed any Asian American as untrustworthy and scary. We’ve seen another version of this enemy myth after 9/11 when anyone from the Middle East or any Muslim was suddenly a risky terrorist.

You might also want to check out this site about American Myths and their realities . It describes 10 myths that shape our lives such as “separation of church and state,” “no one is above the law,” and others.

Caution: We want to avoid dismissing myths as LIES or DECEPTIONS (that’s something Plato might do) … we’d call that attitude the standard view of communication because if we call myths FALSE LIES, then it implies that we should be using communication merely to describe and transmit the “truth” and nothing else.

The important thing is how we think about myths and how we recognize and realize the ways myths create reality. If we learn a rhetorical view of communication, we realize that most every cultural story is a “myth” (or all knowledge/truth is “metaphor” for Nietzsche … or every identity is a performance for Goffman). We pay attention to the many ways humans and human culture invent and re-shape those myths. And we realize that those myths all have social and political consquences. We can’t live without myths, but we can have a better understanding of how they shape our lives, our identities, and our world.

Here are a few other sites and a clip that provide interesting points to consider about myths in U.S. culture.

  • Here’s a post from another wordpress blogger about Myths: Ten American Myths 
  • Election rhetoric last fall played on a myth of small-town America as the real heart of America with hard-working, family-value oriented, folks. These qualities are not false, but they are not “natural” or “given” as this opinion piece points out: Yo, John McCain, while you’re in Pennsylvania
  • We create mythical heroes out of people like Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This site looks at the myth of Abraham Lincoln.

You might write about any of these examples or keep thinking about other examples of myths–the myth of the “traditional American family,” for example, or historical myths like the Boston Massacre or the way college admission materials construct myths about university life and the college experience.

More Metaphors

Nietzsche defines truth as “A mobile army of metaphors … in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.” In other words, he wants us to realize that we have invented knowledge and truth within human communication (this should remind you of Peters), but we tend to forget that truth is human-centered. Because we forget that humans constructed truth with metaphors (arbitrary words that become concepts) we tend to accept the “serious premises” and treat truth as stable, firm, and natural (sort of like Lanham says we think about our “central self”).

We looked at a few examples in class and tried to define the “truth” about “trees,” “mammals,” “family,” “honesty.” You could also think about “love” as a metaphor. We can’t know for SURE or with absolute certainty what “love” is. We can only group together similar (but not identical) experiences and feelings and stories and moments and call them “love.” But the essence of that concept is unknowable — we can only “know” it through what we say about it and what people agree to call “love.”

Colors might also help you think about how metaphors work. First, we made arbitrary distinctions as to what we would call light at certain wavelengths. So the “fact” that we call a certain wavelength of light “blue” or “red” or “green” is a metaphor. However, humans have added even more meaning to these metaphors because we associate certain colors with certain ideas or feelings. What do you think of when you see “black?” We wear black to funerals or when we’re sad or somber. It usually symbolizes evil and darkness. The way we use and talk about that color makes it seem like there is some inherent truth to the color. We could wear green or purple to funerals but we don’t. Those don’t have the right “meaning.” The same goes for red and sensuality or anger; blue and calm or peacefulness or sometimes sadness; white for purity and cleanness and goodness. But again these meanings are arbitrary things humans created that we’ve forgotten we made up.

I said in class that there isn’t much on the line when we talk about “squirrels” or “trees” … but when we believe we know the “truth” about bigger issues like what “life” truly is or what it means to be a true “American,” then it becomes important to remember how “flighty” knowledge can be and how we have the ability to create and revise knowledge–for good or for bad. 

We looked at one of the following clips before. During last fall’s election many candidates and pundits argued for their absolute knowledge and truth what it meant to be an “American.” Is there a Truth to that term? Many peple acted as if there was a truth to that concept? As if they knew the “real America” or the TRUE America … The Daily Show with John Stewart (which is typically a prime example for the “rhetorical view” of communication) featured these segments about the idea of a “REAL” America:

Again, the point is not that truth doesn’t exist and so we shouldn’t even talk about it. We’re not saying that anything goes.” Rather, because we have the ability to construct truth and knowledge with metaphors, we should pay attention to the rhetorical process that creates our knowledge. Whenever someone claims to have the definitive truth or knowledge, we should pay attention to how and why that knowledge came to be. Maybe we’ll all agree to it (like we all agree to call cute, fuzzy, rodents “squirrels”) and we’ll move on with no problem. But maybe we’ll see a problem that we could address like when someone claims that a small segment of the country are the “real” Americans. And remember, Burke helps us see that identification implies division–if we claim that it’s TRUE that one group represents “real, pro-America” Americans, then we’re implying that other citizens are bad, anti-American people.

Think about how we define “life.” Many people have strong beliefs about the knowledge of what counts as “life” … but even that concept becomes shaky when we consider debates over euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, removing brain-dead people from life support, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, the death penalty, casualties of war, the quality of life for people living in poverty. And those are just the debates over human life. Environmental activits or animal-rights activists will use the metaphor of “life” to include farm animals, endangered species, even plant life and eco-systems.

The “style” of education

The way we think and talk about the “classroom” and “education” provides examples that tie course concepts together.

From a “standard view” of education, we might believe that education merely transmits objective facts, data, knowledge, and truth about the world. History is merely neutral facts. Literature and poetry are fluff that don’t matter too much for the “real” world. We learn “skills” and learn how to use “tools” that help us be efficient workers (and communicators). We memorize ideas and data and then imitate and repeat those ideas. From this way of thinking, the teacher deposits knowledge into your head, fills your head as if it were an empty receptacle.

On the other hand, a “rhetorical view” might realize that education and everything about education influences and invents knowledge and the way we understand the world and ourselves.  We cannot transmit information and knowledge as neutral, objective bits of data; instead, the process of education (which happens with communication) invents the knowledge.

The “style” of education also changes the way we think about education. Imagine what you would think about the class (and me) if I stood behind the podium and read a prepared lecture to you. Would you be excited about the class? Would you want to learn as much? The presetation style evokes different reactions.

You could also think about the physical arrangement of a classroom as a style that affects meaning and behavior. Look at the following pictures and consider how the style of the classroom communicates attitudes and beliefs and values about communication and education:


If you enter a class and all the desks are arranged in a circle, what do you expect in that class? How does that front imply a certain performance? If you walk into a large lecture auditorium where the lights are turned low except for the lights on the stage by the podium, what do you expect that class / lecture to be like? What does that style imply about the role of the students in the learning process? Are the students supposed to be active participants in that scene?

Like Lanham wrote, “Style becomes content” and “choreographs … human consciousness.”

Pink and Pepsi

Here are two more examples that continue the conversations about identification, belonging, performance, etc.

Apparently real “men” can take anything except Diet drinks … so Pepsi had to come up with a diet soda–for men. Now this message alone might not be significant. But when we think of the “body of identifications” or wide range of messages that present a “dull daily reinforcement” we get a better sense of the scripts or fronts that we create for men (and women) to reenact and recreate. “Belonging … is rhetoricial” and we learn that in many cases if we want to “belong” we’d better play our “roles” to meet other people’s expectations.

When we have a “rhetorical view” of communication and we start to pay attention to the messages that create identifications and divisions and the messages that move us to behave, believe, and perform in certain ways, we also develop the ability to intervene and invent new ways to communicate.  I believe that’s what Pink attempts to do in “Stupid Girls” … she wants to create a different body of identifications that encourage women to identify with different roles and select different fronts and put on different performances.

How do you see Burke and Goffman’s ideas relating to these clips? Or to any other examples you’ve found? [I’ve used gender as an example because it’s often something that most of us can relate to and recognize easily … but we can apply and think about the same theories and ideas when we think any of our identities and performances: race, sexuality, class, religion, profession, organization (think especially about Greek organizations) …]

From performace to identification: Beauty

We are moving on to consider the role of rhetoric in identification and division. But we are not done talking about performance. We’ll keep relating back to performance all semester. There are many connections to make between Goffman and Burke, and as we explore rhetoric and identification this week, I encourage you to explore and discuss those connections in examples on your team blogs.

Here is one example of the relationship between identification (Burke’s topic) and performance (Goffman) with significance for all of us. Watch the following short video from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

The film focuses on women and certainly we can find a long history of research and evidence that women are affected by body image concerns. But let’s be clear: men experience the same concerns about body image–maybe to a lesser degree, but men still have anxieties over their bodies, weight, and appearance. Think of all the exercise products, hair-growth products, etc. targeted toward men. Not convinced? Here are a few articles that migh help: Media Assault on Male Body Image and Enhancing Male Body Image. In my opinion, men don’t talk about these things because it isn’t “manly” to feel insecure and it isn’t “tough” to have those anxieties … which is another conversation about identification and performance altogether.

But to the point … how is it that we come to identify ourselves with being “ugly” or “fat” or “unattractive” or “too big,” “too skinny,” “too pale,” “too dark,” “too whatever…“? Burke’s ideas help us think about that question. We receive a regular influx of messages from television, magazines, friends, family, etc. that create a collective meaning for ideas like “beauty” or “sexy” or “attractive.” If those messages don’t often include us or people who look like us, then we don’t “see” ourselves in that definition or in Burke’s terms, we might not “identify” with those things. In other words, we are “divided” from these characteristics. If we don’t identify with those images, terms, ideas, then we often feel we are NOT those things.

Once we realize our identities, we perform these identities. When the young woman in the video feels “fat” she constantly feels she needs to pull her shorts and skirt down lower to cover her “fat” legs. Another young woman described doing sit ups every night. Our performances in large part are driven by the ideas and characteristics we identify with. If I feel “fat,” I might put on a front of trying to work out regularly. If I have learned to identify myself with “unattractive,” then I might perform in ways that confirm or create a reality of feeling unconfident and insecure. The ways in which we always perform are directly related to the identities and characteristics we are rhetorically encouraged to identify with.

“Things won’t change until we change them”

Here’s a preview of things to come in this course and another reason why the “rhetorical view” is so important. The more we fall into the “standard view” of communication, the more likely we will simply accept our created definitions of “beauty” or “sexy” or “attractive” as natural or pre-existing (as if those meanings are just “real” and exist independent of the way we communicate about them.) We are more likely to feel like we can’t do anything about it.

But Peters reminds us we have the ability to find new ways to communicate and we can create new worlds and Isocrates praises the power of communication to build societies. The significance of these ideas is that we can change our messages and change the ways we identify and change our performances, etc. We can learn to pay careful attention to the complex and broad range of communication that shapes how we think, what we value, and how we behave, and we can realize our ability to intervene and change things and make new meanings.

Here’s one more short commercial from Dove that points to the profound impact that a simple performance or communication might have. From the standpoint of the unseen young woman who can only see what’s “wrong” with her, we see how negative identifications adversely affect our performances. From the standpoint of the young man we see how a simple “performance” might dramatically change the “reality” for this young woman.